Atamjit Singh

South Asian Graduate Research Journal, Volume 4, No. 1, Spring 1997

The language divide in Punjab at the turn of the twentieth century presents a complex phenomenon. In the wake of the reorganization of Indian states along linguistic lines in the fifties, the Sikh community in Punjab demanded a Punjabi-speaking State, in which Punjabi would be the official language. Its recognition was unduly delayed due to opposition from Hindus living in the states now Haryana and Punjab. Prior to Independence, Punjabi Hindus used Urdu as the language of administration, commerce and journalism. Urdu was also the major language of literary expression in British Punjab while Punjabi was the spoken language. As Punjabi Hindus were mainly a mercantile urban middle class, they were enthusiastic users of Urdu. They were also struggling to procure political status for Hindi which would displace Urdu. In their eagerness to achieve this objective, they began declaring Hindi rather than Punjabi as their mother tongue in the censuses with the intention of gaining numerical precedence over Muslims and Urdu.[1] Like the Hindus, and swayed by their leaders, Punjabi Muslims--who mostly spoke regional varieties of Punjabi--fought to maintain Urdu's official status on the lower and middle rungs of civil administration and education.

After Independence, as a result of the partition of India, most of the Muslim population from Punjab migrated to Pakistan and similarly the entire Sikh population together with most of the Hindus from west Punjab migrated to the Indian Punjab. In the Indian Punjab, language confrontation shifted from Urdu-Hindi to Hindi-Punjabi soon after the question of deciding the state language arose.[2] It was also accompanied by communal tensions between Hindus and Sikhs which had remained dormant during the British period since the struggle was primarily confined to the two major religious groups--Hindus and Muslims. As a tiny minority, the Sikhs previously had a deep and symbiotic relationship with the Hindu community at large. In fact, the two were tied to each other through a complex of laminated attitudes and reciprocities, besides the bonds of blood and bone.[3] Since Hindus and Sikhs jointly constituted a minority against the Muslim majority in the British Punjab the Sikhs, by and large, threw in their lot with Hindus.

The emergence of Hindu and Muslim nationalism in Punjab led to a distortion of certain cultural processes, with the most potent expression showing in the identification of language with religion.[4] In fact, this situation prevailed in all the provinces of North India in which the Hindu and Muslim populations were numerically balanced--albeit rather precariously. Prior to Partition, the Muslims had a slight majority over the Hindus in the united Punjab.[5] The British rulers made Urdu a medium of school instruction and administration at the lower and middle levels with this in view. After the Muslims migrated to Pakistan, Urdu was displaced as a language of administration and education due to the disappearance of Muslims from the political scene. It should have been natural for Punjabi to take its place for the simple reason that it was the spoken language of the people. But this did not happen. A battle of succession started, the Hindus fighting for Hindi and the Sikhs for Punjabi.[6] The Hindus as a majority identified themselves with Hindi, and Muslims in Pakistan abandoned Punjabi and made Urdu a communal badge of their ethnic identity. Even in British Punjab they were committed to Urdu since it was the language of their religious identity. In Indian Punjab, Hindus started cultivating Hindi with fanatic devotion and Punjabi became a symbol of the Sikhs' cultural and political identity. Under the impact of Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform organization, the Hindus had already adopted Hindi as communal symbol of Hindu nationalism and Sikhs began constructing their minority identity through Punjabi language and literature under the influence of the Singh Sabha movement.[7]

In this paper, I will explain (1) how religion, politics and language were intermixed in Punjab, resulting in ongoing communal conflict between Hindus and Sikhs, giving birth to Sikh separatism. (2) I will also try to demonstrate that the religious symbols improvised and utilized by leaders of political parties to mobilize nationalist sentiments rarely appealed to minority communities and indigenous groups. Most of these minority groups later opted for demands of statehood autonomy with special status. (3) I will further try to show that such separatism, as developed in Punjab later, gave rise to Sikh militancy in the eighties as the minuscule leadership aspiring for power exploited the racial and ethnic sentiments in their own narrow political interests. The politics of evasion, intransigence and backsliding combined with the growth of both Hindu and Sikh fundamentalism made the situation still worse. (4) Another dimension of this conflict is its serious impact on the development of the modern Punjabi literary tradition. It limited the development of the tradition into a dialogue of the Sikh minority community with itself, curbing the tradition's potential for growth as a Punjabi secular tradition. This contributed to the growing insularity of this literature in the midst of India's cultural pluralism. (5) Considering that conflicts between the rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities to use and preserve their languages and the desire of centralized states to establish a national language in South and Southeast Asia have often been resolved in an atmosphere of liberal linguistic pluralism in which multiformity is largely preserved, I would like to suggest that India's lengthy tradition of multilingualism and societal bilingualism can offer a just and fair solution to the conflict.[8]

The Punjabi-Hindi conflict in the fifties and sixties, by and large, revolved around three issues.[9] The first was the status of the Punjabi language. Hindus argued that Punjabi was not a full-fledged language. It was only a dialect of Hindi without a strong literary tradition and one that could not be raised to the status of a state language due to its backwardness. The second reason given was that Punjabi did not have a thoroughly developed script of its own. Finally, there was no specific area or region in Punjab where it was being spoken, because Hindus, claiming Hindi as their mother tongue, lived all over Punjab. Hindus, therefore, argued against Punjabi not because they had convincing reasons, but because Hindi was the language of their religious discourse and a symbol of their political dominance. In their fight against Urdu they had already adopted Hindi as a symbol of their distinct socio-political identity.

If we try to understand this situation from a linguistic point of view, the Hindu argument does not remain tenable. According to research conducted by Grierson, Punjabi is a distinct language with both a standard literary form and a number of dialectical and subdialectal varieties.[10] It has its own grammatical system and vocabulary which makes it a separate language. Although Grierson recognized its literary capabilities, he judged that it was not a very extensive regional literature.[11] This charge was later refuted by Punjabi scholars.[12] Most importantly, Grierson rejects the idea that Punjabi was just a dialect of Hindi and he draws a fairly sharp boundary between Punjabi and Western Hindi or Hindustani. In fact, the controversy between Punjabi and Hindi protagonists was rife at his time and this made him take a clear stand in regard to the Punjabi language's separate identity. While writing on the features of the Punjabi language, he concludes:

Even at the present day there is too great a tendency to look down upon Punjabi as a mere dialect of Hindustani (which it is not), and to deny its status as an independent language. Its claim mainly rests upon its phonetic system and on its store of words not found in Hindi; both of which characteristics are due to its old lahanda foundation. Some of the most common words do not occur in Hindustani.[13]

With the development of the sociolinguistic study of Indian languages, many linguists like Gumperz, Pandit, Srivastva, and Pattanayak[14] have shifted their focus from distinguishing languages and dialects to the study of codes and their distances from one another in bilingual situations. Gumperz conducted a study examining the use of Hindi and Punjabi among the urban Punjabi community of Delhi. He found that speakers in various contexts use different codes of Punjabi. An educated speaker uses three linguistic codes. He may use a Hindi code while conversing with a Hindi speaker, a Hindi/English dominant Punjabi code while talking with an educated Punjabi speaker and a native regional variety code with an uneducated Punjabi speaker.[15] The discussions by Grierson and Gumperz enable an objective observer to understand that certain arguments advanced by Hindi proponents against the status of Punjabi are incorrect. Saying that Punjabi is nothing more than a dialect of Hindi is contrary to linguistic facts. The area where Punjabi is spoken is fairly distinct. Both advocates of Punjabi and Hindi at one time were willing to accept, on the basis of the Sachar Formula or Regional Formula, that Hindi speaking areas could be differentiated from the rest of the Punjab. But Hindus argued that even the Punjabi-speaking region was bilingual.[16] The pro-Punjabi reply to this was that the mother-tongue of the whole population of the Punjabi region was Punjabi. The only thing needed to settle this argument was to decide whether the so-called Punjabi region is inhabited by people of different religions speaking the same mother tongue or people of different religions and different mother tongues.[17] The Hindu argument that Punjabi did not have Gurmukhi as its sole script and the script was not as fully developed as Devanagari was also not true. There is no denying that Punjabi was written in Gurmukhi, Persian characters and Devanagari; but it was Gurmukhi which was being used by both Hindus and Sikhs for writing their literature. Since the Sikh scriptures were written in Gurmukhi, the Sikhs naturally favored the use of this script for Punjabi.[18] Hindus opposed Gurmukhi precisely for this reason and wanted to use Devanagari for the Punjabi language.[19] The contention over the scripts in Punjab caused Gurmukhi to become the symbol of the separate identity of Sikhs. As a result it became a focal point on which the cultivation of the Punjabi language and pursuit of Sikh cultural aspirations rested.[20]

The Hindi movement in nineteenth-century Punjab was led by Punjabi Hindus, themselves educated in English and Urdu.[21] In its origin, the Hindi movement was purely a religio-political or sectarian movement promoted by the Arya Samaj to displace the official status of Urdu in the Persian script due to its association with Muslim communal identity and Hindi's with Hindu revivalism and religious reform. The push to replace Urdu was also associated with political aspirations. The Hindi-Urdu clash in British India erupted first in 1882, a year after the decision of the government to replace Urdu in Persian script with Hindi in Devanagari script in the province of Bihar. Urban Hindus in Punjab soon made the same demand.[22] Both sides saw this as a manifestation of the Hindu-Muslim communal conflict. The Anjumun-e-Islamiya of Lahore protested against this demand, which it saw as delivering "a death-blow to the prospects of Mohammadans."[23] Lala Lajpat Rai, the famous Arya Samaj leader and Punjab politician who did not even know the Hindi alphabet, entered the political arena through this controversy. He came to believe that Hindi could be the foundation for the edifice of Indian nationalism. Through the Hindi-Urdu controversy, Lajpat Rai learned his first lesson of `Hindu nationalism' and became convinced that political solidarity demanded the spread of the Hindi language in Devanagari script.[24] Muslims retained political dominance and Urdu its official status in the Punjab until 1947, when India attained independence. The Simon Commission had earlier rejected the demand of making Hindi or Punjabi the medium of instruction at primary level in the schools of British Punjab. The promotion of Punjabi and Hindi was, however, overseen by denominational educational institutions run under the aegis of the Chief Khalsa Dewan and Arya Samaj respectively.

The real trouble started with the census operations of 1951 and 1961 when, after independence, the Hindus of Punjab decided to record their mother tongue as Hindi instead of Punjabi.[25] The Punjabi language became an instrument of political struggle. Punjabi Hindus took up the cause of Hindi with such great passion that they abjured their links with Punjabi as their mother tongue. As discussed, organized efforts to influence the censuses in favor of a language by associations and individuals belonging to religious communities was taking place even earlier. The major conflict during the 1911, 1921 and 1931 censuses was between the educated Muslims and Arya Samaj Hindus. Each urged their religious brethren to declare Urdu or Hindi, respectively, as their mother tongues. In this quarrel Hindustani--a common name used by the superintendents of the census operations for both Hindi and Urdu--was weakened since the use of Hindi and Urdu was insistently forced on the informants. By 1941 communal feelings surged so high and deceptions were so widespread that the mother tongue category was ordered not to be tabulated.[26] In 1951, instead of Hindi-Urdu, the conflict centered around Punjabi-Hindi. Hindus under the banner of Arya Samaj exhorted their co-religionists to record Hindi as their mother tongue. The Sikhs urged fellow-Sikhs to record their mother tongue as Punjabi. In the urban areas the census operations were being accompanied by the shouts of 'Har Har Mahadev' by Hindu groups and 'Sat Sri Akal' by Sikhs, charging the political atmosphere with intense emotion. In 1961, under the leadership of the Arya Samaj and Hindu militant organizations, such as Jan Sangh and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, Hindus launched a concerted campaign to declare their mother tongue as Hindi. The Sikhs were being advised similarly under the aegis of the Shromani Akali Dal to record Punjabi as their mother tongue. The vernacular papers of both groups, primarily published in Urdu, appealed to their respective communities to show loyalties to their own language. The Sikh newspapers also started expressing fear that the Sikh religion was in danger and that the mighty Hindu religion was going to devour all minority religions.[27] The Hindu newspapers started propagating the idea that Sikhs were traitors and that they wanted to set up their own independent state of Khalistan.[28] The atmosphere of mutual hatred and mistrust, fanned by intense communal sentiments, further complicated matters.

As a result of the 1961 census, the Hindi movement succeeded in reducing the declared number of Punjabi speakers to a minority in the state for the first time in the history of the census. The declared Hindi speakers grew from a small minority into a big majority in Punjab and Punjabi speakers, who never constituted less than 60% of the total population of the pre-Partition province, became 41% of the post-Partition Punjab state.[29] Sikhs became a small minority in political power sharing also. Sikhs were compromised by the fact that it was Hindus who controlled the economic and political power.[30] This also caused resentment among the Hindu population of what is now Haryana because they did not share equally in economic and political power with Punjabi Hindus.[31] Sikhs launched a movement for the linguistic reorganization of Punjab, as had been done in other parts of the country. In doing so, they could not hide their real intentions of forming a Sikh majority state within the Indian Union.[32] The struggle for achieving respectable political status for Punjabi in the state of Punjab was intermixed with the urges and aspirations of the Sikh minority community which used language in its search for cultural and political fulfillment. During this period, Sikhs asserted themselves as a separate entity in competition with Hindus through the Punjabi language. Increasingly, in post-Partition Punjab the allegiance of particular groups has been in the arena of linguistic conflict, and language and script have been politically important markers of group identification.[33]

Another aspect of this battle of languages in Punjab was that Punjabi literature produced in the early twentieth century did not grow as a secular Punjabi tradition representing the integral Punjabi consciousness. The Sikh community, mainly contributing to the development of twentieth-century Punjabi literature, started writing under the influence of Singh Sabha, a Sikh religio-social reform movement which devotes itself to revival. It largely spread through an assertion against others of the superiority of the Sikh sacred texts and history.[34] This dominant tendency stressed separatism more than participation in the multi-ethnic literary tradition handed down by Punjabi literature of medieval times. One far reaching effect was that the doors for the expansive instincts of the Punjabis were unlocked as never before. They colonized vast arable lands within Punjab and northwestern parts of Uttar Pradesh, joined the army in large numbers, built railroads, roads and bridges in India as well as abroad.[35]

Only a couple of decades before British rule was established, Punjabis had enjoyed the pride of being the builders of secular Punjabi rule. The structure was established to an extent during the times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and acknowledged by the poet Shah Muhammad in his Jangnamah mabein Sikhan te Frangian (a narrative describing wars between the British and the Sikhs). The poet praises Sikh rule and cites it as an example of secular rule where all religious communities--Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs--lived in peace and amity. The disintegration of this rule and subsequent annexation of Punjab by the British greatly wounded the self-esteem of the Sikh community. Furthermore the Sikhs enjoyed the reputation as protectors of the weak and meek; a tiny group (2% of the total population of India), they were in the habit of delegating to themselves roles and images larger than life.[36] Their reputation as the lions of the Punjab was supported by the wide respect and affection with which they were seen throughout India.

It goes without saying that many Punjabis were very enterprising, forward-looking and secular despite the fact that they were interlocked in conflict with each other on the basis of religious and linguistic identities beginning at the turn of the century. Caste was much less pernicious in the Punjab than elsewhere in India and functioned more as class did in European communities. Baldev Raj Nayar in his book Minority Politics in Punjab observes that there is a proliferation of caste groups in Punjab, but caste as a social phenomenon is not as strong in Punjab (except in the Haryana area) as it is in some other parts of India. In support of his argument he quotes a governmental report from the 1920s which reads:

It would be misleading to attach too great importance to the existence of caste in the Punjab. . . Not only is it the case that the brahman has no practical pre-eminence among Hindus, but as between "caste" and "non-caste" Hindus the distinction is not so marked as to create the political problems found elsewhere in India . . . The problem in truth, if one exists, is rather of classes socially depressed than of "out-castes" as such; while much remains to be done for the social uplift of some of these classes, they hardly present a separate political problem.[37]

In fact, communalism in Punjab as elsewhere in India was definitely promoted by the British as part of the colonial project, and some of the same tactics are being used by the post-colonial governments. Gyanendra Pandey in his book Communalism and Nationalism in North India states that ". . . communalism is a colonial construct that enabled state control in the guise of mediating religious divisions." 38 According to him, communalism is a form of colonialist knowledge. The paradox is that the nationalists have done more than any one else to propagate its use. In effect communalism as religious difference was constructed as "the other" of modernity and nationalism; therefore it was necessary for the emergence of India as a nation. Indian nationalist claims for the Hindu character of the Indian nation and of Hindu nationalism, occurred concurrently with the positioning of the Indian nation-state as the keeper of law and order, just as the colonial state had been.[39] The British utilized the religious differences of the three communities of Punjab to promote their `divide and rule' policy. The successive Congress governments in the center after Independence have done everything to give religious shape to negotiations of economic, linguistic, and political issues in Punjab.[40]

The congruence of religious with linguistic identities in Punjab at the beginning of this century affected the Punjabi language in two ways. First, the intense literary activity generated by the Sikh movement as it sought self-definition converged with the desire to acquire a proper status for Punjabi. Here a conscious shift in the choice of language as a literary medium is noticeable. In the nineteenth century, the language of medieval literary texts was Braj in Gurmukhi script, but Bhai Vir Singh chose spoken Punjabi as a medium for his writings.[41] This change indicates a loss of interest in Braj bhasha which came to be considered more a part of Hindu literary and cultural heritage, though poetic narratives in the Gurmukhi variety of Braj centered around the life of Sikh Gurus.[42] Conversely, Hindus began to lose interest in the Braj classical literature of Punjab because it was transcribed in Gurmukhi, a script identified with Punjabi and the Sikh Gurus.[43] Under the influence of the Arya Samaj, Hindus had attuned themselves with the revival of Vedic religious tradition. This resulted in neglect of a significant part of the medieval Punjabi literary tradition which, though it had its roots outside Punjab, still found a hospitable ground to develop on Punjabi soil. The modern Punjabi language was unfortunately deprived of the richness of the pan-Indian experience of this literary tradition.[44]

Another outcome is that the Qissa stream of the medieval Punjabi tradition, nurtured by the Muslim Punjabi poets in Persian script, was also ignored by the Sikh revivalist writers, and therefore could not contribute fully to the development of a modern Punjabi idiom due to its association with Muslim life and culture.[45] The modern literary scholars, imbued with Sikh religious fervor, repudiated Qissa poetry as qualitatively inferior and excluded it from their imaginative scope.[46] Hence the art of Qissa-writing was left to stagnate. The work of a few writers who adopted it in the present century, such as Dhani Ram Chatrik, was seen as second rate.[47] Urdu drifted away from Punjabi and became closer to Persian classicism and orthodox Islam. Since it became a badge of Muslim nationalism in Punjab, Qissa writing was disassociated with the land and the people of Punjab. This also inhibited the development of modern Punjabi registers.[48] The dismemberment of a common Punjabi literary culture through the rise of various religious nationalisms led to a shrinkage of historical and cultural perspective, obfuscating Punjabi literature's links with Indian literary classicism spreading over thousands of years and distant lands of Arabo-Persian writings.[49] Thus the beginnings of modern Punjabi literature witnessed the crumbling of the plural and multicultural constitution of the Punjabi literary tradition and the advancing of a singular, monolithic voice of a minority of Sikhs.[50] The linguistic idiom born out of this situation also testified to a near absence of spontaneous and vital dialogue with intellectual and literary activity in other parts of the country.[51] The Punjabi language, due to the inhibitive impact of the neo-religious Sikh literary movement, expressed secular ideas coming through the Western world at the start of the British period until the writings of Prof. Puran Singh, Dhani Ram Chatrik, Mohan Singh, Amrita Pritam, etc., appeared. The neo-Sikh movement together with the denial of Punjabi in educational and administrative affairs slowed the emergence of Punjabi culture's secular character.[52]

As discussed above, the diminishing secular, open and generous tendencies in modern Punjabi literature were accelerated under the influence of Western literature. It is important to note that against the scenario created by Sikh literature in the spirit of revivalism, Punjabi language and literature strived to adopt secular themes. In the medieval period of Punjabi literary history, secular themes found their expression mainly in Qissa poetry. Punjabi poets in 1920s and 1930s were especially attracted to the idea of Punjabi nationalism. In this regard Attar Singh says,

. . . identification of renascent Punjabi language with an idea of the Punjab was only too natural as such an identity alone could impart to it a distinctive cultural personality especially when no other language could have acquired Punjabi personality as authentically and as effectively as Punjabi--the language of the soil.[53]

Punjabi writing progressively aspired to project a common, composite Punjabi culture taken from social, political, and cultural elements. The national freedom movement, the influence of the Ghaddar Party in both India and the United States, the Akali protest movement against ritualism and priesthood in Sikh shrines, and the impact of the Western way of life in Punjab came together to shape a secular consciousness and sensibility. All these factors helped in creating a secular voice through the use of Punjabi in diverse forms of literary discourse as well as intellectual debate and discussion.

As seen above, during various census operations conducted by the British Government, the census superintendents promoted a composite all-India language called Hindustani, a blend of Hindi and Urdu. Communal passions aroused by different religious groups of the province fighting for Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi during these periods eroded the effort. Even then an attempt to evolve an all-India linguistic idiom which could become an instrument of communication beyond the narrow considerations of different religious groups was made. This could not take shape due to the creation of "communal languages" in the colonial period. Peter van der Veer, referring to the work of David Lelyveld, laments the eclipse of a language called Hindustani, which could have had the potential of acquiring the role of a lingua franca in the post-Independence period.[54] This language was observed by John Gilchrist, a Scottish physician and indigo farmer. It was a unified language with three major dialects distinguished by the use of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, or ordinary Hindi words. Gilchrist was prepared to publish his lexicon of Hindustani in both the Arabic and Nagari (Sanskrit script) as well as in Roman transliteration.

The idea behind the project of Gilchrist was not to create an instrument of wider communication for the people of India. Lelyveld notes that this project, undertaken at the end of the eighteenth century, was very similar to language projects in England and France during the same period. The clientele in this case was not indigenous but were the officers of the East India Company. The project was also intended to establish further rapport between the rulers and the "natives."[55] During the latter half of the nineteenth century under British rule, this project was turned into linguistic surveys to identify spoken languages through which the foreign rulers could forge better ties with local people.[56] The purpose of this colonial survey was to find a suitable language to replace Persian as the official language. Gilchrist's Hindustani later became Urdu which, after standardization, was made the official language of a large part of North India, including Punjab. This arrangement continued to exist until India became independent. Urdu, Hindi and Hindustani are all literary languages constructed to suit the purposes of literate elites. It is by their scripts that Hindi and Urdu were identified. Through their written form they are tied to the idea of civilization, which is simultaneously that of religion. Peter van der Veer further states that the development of Hindi as the language of Hindus and Urdu as the language of Muslims is as fraught with contradictions as any other aspect of religious nationalism.[57] Lelyveld provides a fascinating story of the role played by All India Radio. In 1940, A.S. Bukhari, Director-General of All India Radio, appointed two well-known writers of Hindi and Urdu to prepare a lexicon for Hindustani news broadcasts. They were both to find the most common, precise and, if possible, neutral terms from either Hindi or Urdu to create a new Hindustani, a language of secular nationalism. It took five years to prepare and at that point was already a lost cause due to the chaos of Partition. With Partition, Urdu emerged as the official language of Pakistan and the Muslim minority within India. Hindi became the all-India language, a position it shared with English, and the main language of Hindu nationalism.

Interestingly, Punjabi did not receive a proper role or status even under Maharaja Ranjit Singh.[58] Though he was able to establish the myth of Punjabi secular rule, he never thought of granting official status to the Punjabi language, the spoken language of the people of Punjab. As a result, Persian continued to occupy the position of the administrative and judicial language. Since Persian had been and was the dominant language in Punjab, elites learned it to gain employment and favor with the ruling classes. Some Punjabi sayings ridicule the adoption of Persian. Two such adages `asb aab kar moion puffra farsian ghar galle' and `parho farsian vecho tel' express Punjabi attitudes toward slavishly adopting a foreign language.[59]

The denial of Punjabi in administrative and educational domains at different points in the history of Punjab was lamented in the early thirties by the non-Sikh poet,[60] Feroze Din Sharaf. According to the poet, Punjabis are guilty of neglecting their mother tongue. Sharaf writes that mother Punjabi is wailing:

To those whom I have been lullabying to sleep, I am now a stranger.
Though I am a queen of the land of five rivers, my existence is reduced to a very low position.
Utterly neglected, I am sitting in a corner with my fists closed.
I am a broken Rebecca cast away by its musician-master.
O Sharaf! I am the speech of those, who never cared to give me any regard.

The language divide in Punjab has another interesting aspect. The political history of the province has permanently scarred the memory of the people's collective consciousness. As we have seen during the linguistic reorganization of the Indian states in the fifties, the Shromani Akali Dal made a demand for a Punjabi Suba. Punjabi Hindus, though Punjabi-speaking, threw their support to the Hindi speakers of undivided Punjab. Under the influence of the Arya Samaj they declared Hindi as their language. Consequently, both Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus were deprived of a linguistic state of their own though they constituted a major linguistic group in India. Ironically, the battle between Punjabi and Hindi was carried on through Urdu in Persian script. The vernacular press from Jullundhar, published in Urdu, incited both Hindus and Sikhs to fight with each other on the language issue. The Punjabi suba movement and its campaign for a maha Punjab had major forums in Prabhat owned by Master Tara Singh and Pratap owned by Lala Jagat Narain. Both papers fueled animosity between the two communities, often pushing them to physical violence.[61]

The history of the Punjabi suba movement, therefore, throws adequate light on the importance and functions of language in the development of subjective group identities. In the case of Urdu, a self-conscious elite (supported by the socially mobilized segment of the Muslim community) sought to differentiate Urdu from Hindi in North India. In doing so, Urdu was used to transmit a sense of separateness to the unmobilized, largely rural Muslim population. Through this move, Urdu consciousness was made co-existent with Muslim identity. Language also plays a similar, although somewhat ambiguous, role among Sikh leaders. They take Gurmukhi as a badge of their separateness. This ambiguity, according Paul Brass, "has surrounded the language issue, because the rulers do not permit the Sikhs any more than the Muslims to make a demand based on religion, but only on language."[62] The resulting consequence has been the infusion of religion with language identification in Punjab.

Though the government leaders did not want to accept such a demand on the basis of religion, a Punjabi suba was finally carved out in 1966. This was not on a purely linguistic but also, on a religious basis.[63] After two decades of struggle by the Sikhs, the linguistic division in Punjab was made on communal lines granting the Sikhs a Sikh-majority state excluding vast Punjabi speaking territories outside. The Sikhs themselves were an active party to this political arrangement first in 1956, when a compromise on Regional Formula was reached, and subsequently in 1966, when large chunks of Punjabi speaking areas, especially Kangra, were portioned off from the newly carved state. Territorially apart, vast sections of Punjabi speaking people within the new Punjab and many outside in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi were alienated from the Punjabi language. Speakers of Dogri and Kangri have now started seeking an independent identity for these two major Punjabi dialects. All these developments have adversely affected the growth of the composite personality and its reflection in the literary and cultural configurations in the past fifty years. As a consequence millions of Punjabis have remained outside the Punjabi mainstream in cultural estrangement.[64] The Punjabi identity is gradually veering to a posture of growing isolation from the national mainstream. Large segments of the population living in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, in spite of Punjabi being their language, give Telegu or Sanskrit as their second language.[65] Long outstanding issues such as the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, the allocation of river waters and the inclusion of Punjabi speaking areas left out of new Punjab have languished until now.[66]

Until the early eighties the Akalis continued their struggle for settlement of the pending issues, but their internal factionalism ensured a divided house. In general, Hindus did not have political trust in the Sikh community and most allied themselves with non-Punjabi Hindus. In order to wrest power, the Congress rule at the center undertook a series of maneuvers which worsened the political situation in the state. Whereas the Akalis won Sikh support by raising pro-Sikh issues and unsettling post-Punjabi suba disputes, the Congress government at the center played communal games to achieve its narrow political ends.[67] Unfortunately for Punjab this situation continued for a long period, accentuating the political conflict and deepening the crisis. Atul Kohli, in his book Democracy and Discontent expresses that "though these issues were significant and controversial, still they were not that important to justify the loss of thousands of lives in the anarchy that followed." He further states that "we know that during 1982-84 the two sides were close to agreement on two occasions, but at the last minute Indira Gandhi and her advisers detected some hitches and recanted."[68] According to Kohli,

The most persuasive explanation for actions is not indecisiveness which would have been quite unlike her [Indira Gandhi] but rather her typical fear of losing power. A settlement would have meant a political victory for the Akalis and would have had adverse electoral consequences for her Congress. That certainly was true not only within Punjab but elsewhere in North India as well, especially in the state of Haryana, which stood to lose Chandigarh and irrigation waters in any negotiated settlement.[69]

The continuing evasiveness, indifference and insensitivity to Punjab issues and Sikh sensibilities has given rise to militancy in Punjab which during the past two decades has been suppressed through the introduction of draconian laws, thus thwarting all channels of democratic expression. The repeated failure of negotiations between Indira Gandhi and the Akalis, and non-implementation of the agreement reached by Rajiv Gandhi with Sant Longowal allowed the ranks of the militants to swell since 1983-84.[70] In 1984, the storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian Armed Forces (part of Indira Gandhi's political plan to win back Hindu masses) followed by her assassination, led to a series of horrendous events which deepened the Punjab tragedy. The pre-planned massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere greatly increased the alienation of the Sikh community making them feel like a humiliated minority whose future was dark and uncertain in their own country.[71] They made supreme sacrifices in the fight for freedom against British colonial rule and had identified their destiny after Independence with India.[72] Though the militancy in Punjab cannot be condoned, the deep gash inflicted on the Sikh psyche by the bloody drama hurt and anguished the community beyond measure. Again to quote Kohli,

The main political actors in Punjab all have tended to act on their short-term ambitions without much regard for the public good. Such an unrestrained power struggle, in turn, has been a crucial driving force behind the descent toward anarchy.[73]

Police atrocities, fake encounters, and the abrogation of basic human rights in Punjab all further complicated the situation. The Anandpur resolution of 1973 which contained an economic agenda for Punjab and demands for looser state-center relations was rejected and dubbed a secessionist demand.[74] The Punjab crisis deepened further, when the language divide between the two major communities turned into a relationship of mutual distrust and hatred. The cumulative result was non-commitment by the successive governments at the center, repeated betrayals and non-implementation of agreements, police repression, etc. This also added some social-psychological dimensions, e.g., rural-urban and farmer-trader tensions. The strengthening of identities based on language and religion has become so overwhelming that the territorial issues seem irrelevant today. As Atul Kohli asserts:

Indira Gandhi's narrow partisan concerns were important causal ingredients in the Punjab's tragic turmoil. Many innocent lives would have been saved if Indira had put the larger concern for public good ahead of concern for her own and Congress's electoral fortunes. In retrospect, therefore, there is little doubt that a more self-assured or more enlightened leader could have put the conflict in Punjab on a different track.[75]

The language problem exists in all South Asian countries, particularly in those countries which were ruled by the British. In other parts of India, linguistic conflict has been strong and persistent, but nowhere else has a situation like that in Punjab developed. Tensions increased when linguistic issues were confounded by the politics of communalism and culminated with violence. The state terrorism inflicted on the masses has so affected the psyche that it will take some time to heal the minds of the people. India, like many other South Asian countries, has a language policy which can tackle the Punjab problem without any difficulty. It requires tolerance and a change of consciousness. The cultural diversity and multiplicity of languages, if taken as a positive value and recognized as integral to cultural continuance, has precedents in governmental policy decisions. There is a need to give linguistic minorities a role in the policies that will determine the fate of their language. There is a need to start rethinking the language policy of the Federal Government in regards to Punjab.

Atamjit Singh is a lecturer in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Languages at the University of California, Berkeley.

[1] Paul R. Brass, Language, Religion and Politics in North India, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 287.

[2] Paul R. Brass, The Politics of India since Independence, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 163.

[3] Darshan Singh Maini, Cry, The Beloved Punjab--A Harvest of Tragedy & Terrorism, (New Delhi: Sidhartha Publications, 1987), 13.

[4] Attar Singh, Secularization of Modern Punjabi Poetry, (Chandigarh: Punjab Prakashan, 1988), 135.

[5] Ibid., 136.

[6] Brass, Language, Religion and Politics, 288.

[7] Singh, 134.

[8] Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent--India's Growing Crisis of Governability, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 379.

[9] Brass, Language, Religion and Politics, 288.

[10] G. A. Grierson (ed.) Linguistic Survey of India, vol. ix, Indo- Aryan Family, Central Group, pt. 1: Specimens of Western Hindi and Punjabi. (Delhi: Moti Lal Benarsidass 1968), 607-618, 624.

[11] Ibid., 624.

[12] Dr. Mohan Singh Diwana, History of Punjabi Literature, (Amritsar: Kasturi Lal and Sons, 1951), 6.

[13] Grierson, 617. The tone feature of Punjabi which has been worked out by Harjeet Singh Gill, A Reference Grammar of Punjabi (Patiala: Dept. of Linguistics, Punjabi University, 1969) also supports the view that it is quite distinct from Hindi though it has affinity with Hindi, the two being cognate languages of the Indo-Aryan family.

[14] J.J. Gumperz, `Hindi-Punjab Code Switching in Delhi,' in Anwar S. Dil (ed.), Language in Social Groups: Essays by John J. Gumprez, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971), 205-219. P.B. Pandit, India as a Sociolinguistic Area, (Poona, University of Poona, 1972). R.N. Srivastva `Linguistic Minorities and National Languages' in Florian Coulmas (ed.) Linguistic Minorities and Literacy, (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984) attempts to study linguistic differences in terms of distances between various linguistic codes which are used by the speakers in a society in different social contexts. D. Pattanayak, Multilingualism and Mother Tongue Education, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981) also has a similar approach in dealing with problems of mother tongue education in India. This is an approach developed primarily for the study of languages as social phenomena in the context of urban society.

[15] Gumperz, 205-219.

[16] Brass, Language, Religion and Politics, 291.

[17] Ibid., 291.

[18] Ibid., 291.

[19] Ibid., 291.

[20] Singh, 65.

[21] Brass, Language, Religion and Politics, 287.

[22] Ibid., 286.

[23] Lala Lajpat Rai, Autobiographical Writings. (ed.) V. C. Joshi. (Delhi: University Publishers 1965), 25-27, 79.

[24] Ibid., 287

[25] Paul R. Brass, The Politics of India, 163. Gopal Singh observes, "Hindus themselves are responsible for their alienation, insecurity and frustration. By disowning Punjabi as their mother tongue, they have become rootless, and have alienated themselves from culture, history and society of Punjab, thus leaving Sikhs to claim that Punjabi culture and Punjab history was theirs. They `hang' in Punjab like a tree in the air, having no roots in the soil." (ed.) Punjab Today (New Delhi: Intellectual Publishing House, 1987), 27.

[26] Brass, Language, Religion and Politics, 293.

[27] The Akali leaders in the fifties emphasized again and again that "Panth was in danger." They accused the Hindu dominanted Congress Party of being aggressively anti-minority, including the Muslim minority. The Akali leadership exhorted the Sikh masses to be aware of the sinister designs of the Hindu majority which was out to eradicate the minority religions. While making a demand for a Punjabi speaking state, Master Tara Singh would repeatedly say, "I may die but my Panth should live for ever." Sajal Basu says, "The primary motive for the demand of Punjabi Suba was, as Master Tara Singh held it, to protect the Sikh religion and improve the position of the Sikhs." Regional Movements-Politics of Language, Ethnicity-Identity, (New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1992), 18.

[28] Baldev Raj Nayar, Minority Politics in Punjab, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 187.

[29] Brass, Language, Religion and Politics, 294.

[30] Singh, 134.

[31] The consequence of the Haryana Movement was to emphasize the difference between Punjabi-speaking Hindus in the Jullunder division, who feared Sikh domination in a Punjabi Suba, and Hindi-speaking Hindus in Haryana, who were in majority in their region and did not fear Sikh domination, but rather saw that they could achieve greater political and economic prominence in a smaller and more homogeneous state. Brass, Language, Religion and Politics, 331

[32] Brass states, "Nayar argues that in effect the Punjabi Suba movement was a demand for a state in which Sikhs would be dominant camouflaged as a demand for a Punjabi-speaking state." Language, Religion and Politics, 324.

[33] Brass, The Politics of India, 164.

[34] Singh, 60.

[35] Ibid., 102.

[36] K. Nijhawan, "The Sikhs as Heroes," The Tribune, Chandigarh, 13 April, 1985.

[37] Nayar, 209-210.

38 Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 6.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Kohli, 365.

[41] Singh, 59.

[42] Ibid., 54.

[43] Ibid., 54.

[44] Ibid., 57.

[45] Ibid., 54.

[46] Ibid., 54.

[47] Ibid., 59.

[48] Ibid., 60.

[49] Ibid., 54.

[50] Ibid., 139.

[51] Ibid., 140.

[52] Ibid., 132.

[53] Ibid., 134.

[54] David Lelyveld quoted in Peter van der Veer, Religious Nationalism-Hindus and Muslims in India, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 170.

[55] Ibid., 170.

[56] Ibid., 171.

[57] Ibid., 171.

[58] Singh, 50.

[59] These two sayings are very popular and express disdain towards educated people using Persian with their family members. The second saying ridicules the learning of Persian by common people. It states that by studying Persian one would find employment as an oil-seller, a low occupation in Punjabi villages.

[60] Feroz Din Sharaf was a popular Punjabi poet in pre-Partition Punjab who used to participate in Punjabi symposia held in different parts of the province. He was elevated to the position of a Cabinet Minister of Punjab, Pakistan soon after Partition. Sharaf di Sari di Sari Kavita, a collection of his poems, was pubished by the Department of Languages in the Punjab Government in 1979.

[61] Brass, Language, Religion and Politics, 294.

[62] Ibid., 325.

[63] Singh, 136.

[64] Ibid., 136.

[65] Ibid., 136.

[66] Ibid., 136.

[67] Kohli, 365.

[68] Ibid, 362.

[69] Ibid, 358.

[70] Ibid, 364.

[71] Ibid, 374.

[72] Ibid, 360.

[73] Ibid, 361.

[74] Ibid, 359.

[75] Ibid, 362.

Back To APNA Home Page